Friday, 30 December 2016

Myth Today: Truth and Triumph in a Trump World

Figure 1: Truth/Trump

“What is a myth, today” Roland Barthes asks in the opening line to his essay ‘Myth Today’ (2000: 109). Writing in the 1950s it seems questionable that he could have foreseen a presidential election result like that of the United States of America on 9 November 2016, however his essay presents us with its possibility in regards to how language operates: neatly explained in Barthes’ own second level of connotation, the myth: “myth is a type of speech” he answers (ibid.). For those studying the speech act, Donald Trump’s win has provided much food for thought in regards to truth (and reality), and the election campaign has renewed interest in the concept of post-truth, even spawning its own hashtag: #post-truth.

As for the election win itself, not that we can separate the win from the speech acts, in ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ Barthes discusses the problems in regards to the lack of a commonality in a shared language when it comes to hierarchy. Reporting on the murder trial of Gaston Dominic in 1952, Barthes explains the difference between those in power (in this case the Presiding Judge), and ‘the other’ (the accused), when it comes to language (2000: 43-44). He also lists some of the ad hominem terms that were used in the trial to describe the accused and explains that this is how language triumphs in a system of inequality: “this ‘universal’ language comes just at the right time to lend a new strength to the psychology of the masters: it allows it always to take other men as objects, to describe and condemn at one stroke” (2000: 45).

Trump’s language has been thoroughly analysed in the media and in academic texts, well before the few months leading up to the election. I do not plan to include a discourse analysis of what he has said, since this has been well-covered elsewhere. What I would like to do is open a discussion on the idea of truth, as it sits within Barthes concept of myth, in an attempt to understand how the denigrating language Trump used towards particular groups had little negative effect on his popularity, nor the outcome of the election. To pick just three examples, Trump is well-quoted for his pride in “grabbing women by the pussy” (Fishwick 2016), for accusing Mexican immigrants of “bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists” (Neate 2015), and for his anti-Muslim/anti-immigration sentiment: "I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they're going back" (Basu 2015).

Figure 2: Roland Barthes' Semiological Structure of the Myth

Explaining how the sign on the denotative level of signification (language) becomes the signifier on the connotative level (myth) (2000: 115), Barthes states that myth “is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utter its message…Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent, existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things” (2000: 109). Trump’s speech acts have been dispersed and devoured through what Barthes calls “a type of social usage” (ibid.) and I believe that what at one time we found unacceptable, is being given currency at a time when some groups in society feel that they have been failed by the government over a protracted time. Upon repeated use these messages become normalised, they become “filled with a situation” (Barthes 2000: 119). If today we look at the title ‘President-elect Trump’ as a sign, we cannot now separate this phrase from what he said, or from his triumphant win. This is what makes up the concept of the sign, it “reconstitutes a chain of causes and effects, motives and intentions” (ibid.). Value has been attached to what Trump said by some quarters (seemingly, mostly, the disenfranchised white working class), because, despite the content of his rhetoric he still won. This means the myth has been legitimised:
Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an 'elsewhere' at its disposal. The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place (Barthes 2000: 123).
What I think many of us were amazed by was Trump’s blatant use of sexist and racist descriptors (what is known as “unapologetic racism”). He made no attempt to conceal the way he felt about his particular minority group du jour. Not only did he have a complete disregard to political correctness, but also felt no compunction in openly speaking his mind without the use of ‘filters’. He attached no importance to what is known as “preference falsification” (Timur Kuran): the act of not saying what you really think due to social pressure. This has the function of giving...
racists new heart by suggesting that many more people share their beliefs than they might hitherto have believed. Trump’s electoral success tells them that at the least racism is not a politically disqualifying problem for presidential candidates any more, and that perhaps for many voters it is a plus rather than a minus. Second, it tells them that if they themselves publicly express their racism, they are less likely to be socially punished than they previously believed (Farrell 2016).
It is in this way that the myth becomes codified: “the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated” (Barthes 2000: 119). What Barthes means here, though, is how the first level of the sign is taken up into the second level, thus turning it into myth. However, it is also this shift that puts it into circulation and brings it to light: the myth does not conceal anything, rather “its function is to distort, not to make disappear” (2000: 121). The myth, once promulgated, becomes personalised by those who take it up and support Trump. They see themselves as the victim in a dynamic which can conveniently create a scapegoat of any number of minority groups. The supporters of Trump recognise themselves in the myth presented to them: “it is I whom it has come to seek. It is turned towards me, I am subjected to its intentional force” (Barthes 2000: 124).

Figure 3: What Did Trump Say? What Words Are Associated With Him?

Barthes explains how this works in a similar way to how Louis Althusser describes interpellation: “it comes and seeks me out in order to oblige me to acknowledge the body of intentions which have motivated it and arranged it there as the signal of an individual history, as a confidence and complicity: it is a real call” (2000: 125). The Trump supporter has recognised the call and is interpellated as subject to the cause. The message is received as a kind of obviousness, presented as the natural order of things: “A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature” (2000: 142).

In regards to what most of us would see as lies from Trump, for the myth this is not quite the whole story: “Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion” (Barthes 2000: 129). Barthes sees the myth as a type of “compromise” that has the ability to escape any kind of linguistic contradiction that could result from its exposure, any attempt to “liquidate the concept” will simply “naturalize it” (2000: 125). Myth “transforms history into nature” (ibid.) and we know this is how it operates as history is our evidence of this, because myth “is not read as a motive, but as a reason” (ibid.). Barthes goes on to explain that it does not even matter if later on people realise that something is a myth, because “its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” (2000: 130) and we saw this when female Trump supporters were interviewed about his sexist comments: most did not change their minds about supporting him. Nevertheless what is important to remember is that “We are all potential Dominicis”, even those who voted for Trump, because we can all be “deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our accusers, humiliated and condemned by it. To rob a man of his language in the very name of language: this is the first step in all legal murders” (2000: 46).

Donald Trump won the election because of what he said, not despite it – this much is true. For those that voted for him, and for his other supporters and soon-to-be presidential ‘team’, the content of Trump’s speech-acts operated on them through connotation, the second-level of semiology, the myth. Trump utilised the myth to set himself up as the cult leader par excellence. His self-appointed place as saviour of the side-lined has made him a ‘perfect’ leader in a post-truth world.

Bibliography:
Barthes, Roland. 2000. Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage).
Basu, Tanya, ‘Trump Says He’ll Send Refugees back to Syria if Elected’, Time, (30 September 2015), < http://time.com/4056951/trump-syria-refugees/> [accessed 23 November 2016]
Farrell, Henry, ‘Trump’s Election Has Undermined ‘Political Correctness’. That Might Actually Be a Problem’, The Washington Post, (19 November 2016), [accessed 23 November 2016]
Fishwick, Carmen, ‘Can You Be a Feminist and Vote for Donald Trump? Yes You Can’, The Guardian, (17 November 2016), [accessed 21 November 2016]
Neate, Rupert, ‘Donald Trump Doubles Down on Mexico ‘rapists’ Comment Despite Outrage’, The Guardian, (2 July 2015), [accessed 21 November 2016]

Image Credits:
1 Designed by the author.

2 Created by the author based on Roland Barthes own model in Myth Today.
3 Compiled and designed by the author.

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